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Keith Emerson

As one third of legendary prog supergroup EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER, the flamboyant KEITH EMERSON became a byword for the kind of musical excess that incited punk musicians to kick out the Moogs along with the jams. EMERSON himself held a particular fascination for the SEX PISTOLS, who allegedly once burned a lifesize effigy of him at one of their shows (although he has since met and befriended JOHN LYDON).
A precocious talent, Keith (born 1 November 1944, Todmorden, England) began playing professionally in his late teens as a pianist in various R&B bands, before he first found real success playing Hammond organ in P.P. ARNOLD’s backing band, The NICE. The keyboardist’s group split from ARNOLD and enjoyed success in their own right, recording several albums blending rock, jazz and classical influences, and establishing for the man a reputation as showman extraordinaire. An early trick was to stick a knife (gifted to EMERSON by NICE roadie LEMMY) into the keys of his Hammond, holding notes in order to play with more complexity, but also to facilitate the hijinks he would become famous for (he would later fix a board to his amplifier rig in order to throw his knives at it).
It was hearing Walter Carlos’ seminal `Switched On Bach’ album that proved the defining moment in his career, and EMERSON, purchasing one of the first modular Moog synthesizers with which the album was made, soon became the leading exponent of this new sound. From the very beginning, EMERSON had made a habit of re-interpreting works by other composers in his own grandstanding style, often to stunning effect. The addition of the Moog to his arsenal catapulted EMERSON’s appropriations into interstellar overdrive, and he never looked back. Throughout the course of his career, he would draw from a diverse list of “influences”, ranging from Bach, Bartok and the Bernstein’s (Leonard and Elmer) to Beethoven, Berlioz and Bob (DYLAN), although he wasn’t always diligent in crediting his sources.
Following the break-up of The NICE, Keith joined with KING CRIMSON’s Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer of ATOMIC ROOSTER and The Crazy World Of ARTHUR BROWN to form EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (the mooted involvement of JIMI HENDRIX was never realised due to his death). ELP were immediately a huge success, with the single `Lucky Man’ (groundbreaking synth solo and all) performing particularly well, and a number of definitively prog albums followed after their eponymous set in 1970, including `Tarkus’ (1971), `Pictures At An Exhibition’ (1971), `Trilogy’ (1972), and what many consider to be their masterwork, `Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973).
By 1974, ELP, and Keith in particular, had long since left behind any notions of self-restraint. Their triple disc live album, `Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends’, reflected the overindulgence that by this point was perhaps their defining attribute. EMERSON had taken to performing some songs strapped to a piano that was spun suspended from the ceiling of the venue, while others necessitated the unwieldy Moog synth being dragged round stadiums (one of thirteen EMERSON required). The release of `Works Volume I’ (1977) was followed by a grand rock folly to rank amongst the best of them, a tour accompanied by a full symphony orchestra who would eventually be abandoned at the roadside in the face of financial catastrophe. Following the close of the tour and the release of `Works Volume II’, ELP awoke to a world revolutionised by punk, which by its very nature demanded EMERSON’s head on the proverbial pole.
ELP’s riposte was 1978’s `Love Beach’, a contractual obligation that satisfied few and enraged many. EMERSON was crying all the way to the bank at this point, but he could also console himself with the knowledge that his 13-year reign as “Overall Best Keyboardist” in the annual reader’s poll of Keyboard Magazine (on whose advisory board he holds a seat of honour) was by now well underway.
Always at his best as an interpreter and arranger, it was perhaps no surprise that EMERSON began to find work as a composer of film scores. He had been approached to score Norman Jewison’s `The Dogs Of War’ in 1976, but this project was eventually realised without him and EMERSON’s first actual foray into scoring came with Dario Argento’s INFERNO (1980) {*5}. The results were a mixed bag, with much of the score failing to rise above generic horror movie staples, with quiet, creeping piano melodies broken up by crashing sustained chords and string stabs to emphasise “drama”. However rote, the score was nonetheless highly effective in establishing a thoroughly creepy mood and, even though some observers have noted its use in the film itself, sometimes undermines rather than underscores the shocks. The soundtrack picked up considerably when EMERSON let rip and played to his established strengths: i.e. ripping off classical sources in his own inimitable style. When at Argento’s request, he reworked part of Verdi’s `Nabucco’ (namely `Va, Pensiero, Sull’ali Dorate’) in 5/4 time for `Taxi Ride (Rome)’, the score rose above unfavourable comparisons to become notable in its own right.
For the next five years, EMERSON produced a variety of soundtracks, including Sly Stallone flop NIGHTHAWKS (1981) {*5}. Here, Keith was assisted by drummer Neil Symonette, bassist Kendall Stubbs, trumpeter Greg Bowen, percussionist Frank Scully, wind player Jerome Richardson and a full orchestra. Action and suspense being the nature of the film, EMERSON’s music succeeded in transporting us back there in the chilly streets of Manhattan. But for a few hiccups such as `Nighthawking’, featuring banal lyrics sung by Paulette Williams, the set was certainly his most accessible work since `Fanfare For The Common Man’; even a playful cover of the SPENCER DAVIS GROUP’s `I’m A Man’ worked at this level.
Japanese anime, HARMAGEDDON: (1983) {*3}, proved far removed from his first attempts. He often provoked derision and controversy over his hiring. In between his playful horror scores, HONKY (1981) {*4} was issued prior to Hollywood vehicle OST, BEST REVENGE (1982) {*4}. On this ailing effort, he couldn’t quite get to grips with some forgettable and cliched AOR/pop tunes such as `Playing For Keeps’ (featuring Brad Delp of BOSTON on vocals) and `Straight Between The Eyes’ (with Levon Helm of The BAND).
1984’s underwhelming MURDEROCK {*3} – also known as “The Demon Is Loose” or, more aptly, “Slashdance” – this score was shamelessly blatant in its cynical blending of “Flashdance” and giallo slasher flick stylings. EMERSON’s score reflects this in spades, although there was plenty for him to be ashamed of – even director Lucio Fulci was less than impressed with EMERSON’s involvement. The juxtaposition of the anaemic, aspirational rock of the first four tracks and the weak keyboard instrumentals of the rest of the score were less an inspired pairing and more an awkward arranged marriage. The closing quartet of `Murderock –
Parts 1-4’ taken by themselves were interesting enough, representing cues used for the more horrifying scenes, but you get the sense that EMERSON created a score that is all too effective in replicating successes of the past. An appearance as a talking head in Argento documentary `World Of Horror’, his scoring career went on hold for a while and solo albums, EMERSON – THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1988) {*4} and CHANGING STATES (1995) {*5} – aka `Cream of Emerson Soup’ – were interspersed by sporadic attempts to recapture the glory of his 70s heyday. These included a new version of ELP with Palmer replaced by COZY POWELL, and alternative supergroup, 3, with PALMER, but not LAKE.
EMERSON returned briefly to his scoring career in 1989 with LA CHIESA {*5}, which saw his work nestle alongside that of GOBLIN in an Argento-penned horror, and let his fans know he was still capable of writing new material, however bombastic or trite.
Five years later, he contributed original music for the short lived `Iron Man’ animated series, and in the interim period, the classic line-up of ELP re-formed. The announcement of his retirement in 1994 following potentially calamitous nerve-grafting surgery was premature, and two albums of new material were enough to keep ELP on the road for much of the late 90s. Early in the new millennium, he contributed the score to a short film, `The White Room’, while ELP ground to a halt once again.
As a sideline to his ELP work (1998’s `Then & Now’ combined some updates of their recent live sets), and not forgetting BOYS CLUB (alongside Marc Bonilla and veteran Glenn Hughes), Keith duly re-formed The NICE for a post-millennium British tour, before forming the KEITH EMERSON BAND (with Dave Kilminster, Phil Williams and Pete Riley) and publishing his autobiography, Pictures Of An Exhibitionist. A 2006 ELP tour was thwarted by management issues, while Keith’s most recent soundtrack work was for `Gojira: Fainaru Uozo’, intended as a 50th anniversary celebration of the Godzilla franchise. Fan reaction to EMERSON’s score was typically less than charitable.
An album as KEITH EMERSON BAND (2008) {*5} – now featuring Marc Bonilla (vocals, guitar), Travis Davis (bass) and Gregg Bissonette (drums) – basically consisted of one lengthy suite: `The House Of Ocean Born Mary’, while in order to perform ELP tracks and others, Tony Pia replaced Gregg for 2011’s live MOSCOW {*6}.
A collaborative set, LIVE FROM MANTICORE HALL {*6} – recorded in 2010 with GREG LAKE – was left in the can until 2014; instead another KEB outing, this time with the Muncher Rundfunkorchester and credited with Marc Bonilla and Terje Mikkelsen, reared its symphonic head as the THREE FATES PROJECT (2012) {*6}. An “Endless Enigma” of ELP pieces and more besides, Keith was once again displaying sublime showman tendencies.
Tragically, whether connected to a colonoscopy operation to remove a dangerous polyp a few years back, or otherwise, KEITH EMERSON apparently committed suicide by a gunshot to the head on 10th March 2016. Another one of Planet Rock’s greats had sadly passed.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/SW // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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